Do you know how many managers serving people across countries and continents fail to see the business challenges that stem from cultural differences? Many front-line managers and executives overlook the key fact that business learning does not always equate to culture learning. Just because someone has lived in multiple countries or speaks multiple languages does not necessarily mean they are able to cross-culturally communicate for advocacy, people management and leadership.
In the complex and interconnected global culture of today, each of us is shaped by many factors. Culture is one of the powerful influencing forces that deeply shape our values and communication styles.
In other words, culture is central to what we see, how we make sense of what we see, and how we express ourselves. Culture essentially is about how we communicate and it is reflected in both language and behaviour. A prominent sociologist, Geert Hofstede, defines culture as a kind of “collective software of the mind” as it involves a group’s rules for collective behaviour, communication patterns and acceptable power play.
The global village we live In
Here’s some statistical research from 2011 which I picked up from professor Elizabeth Tuleja last year while pursuing a course in intercultural management from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.
Learning how to navigate the nuances and influence a workforce that cuts across countries and cultures is a real challenge for leaders..
As you read this, think about the impact of these statistics on your business plan if you were selling a product or influencing mindsets or advocating social change in a global village of 1000 people.
If the global world in which we live were a village of just 1000 people, it would include:
• 584 Asians
• 124 Africans
• 95 East/West Europeans
• 55 Russians, Latvians, Estonians
• 84 Latin Americans
• 52 North Americans
• 6 Australian and New Zealanders
About half of the people in this global village will speak one of the following languages:
• 165 Mandarin
• 83 Hindi / Urdu
• 86 English
• 64 Spanish
• 58 Russian
• 37 Arabic
• The other half will speak Bengali, Portuguese, Indonesian, Japanese, German, French and some 200 other languages.
In this village of 1000 there are 329 Christians (among them 187 Catholics, 84 Protestants, 31 Orthodox). Besides, there would be:
• 178 Muslims
• 167 “non religious”
• 132 Hindus
• 60 Buddhist
• 45 Atheists
• 3 Jews
• 86 all other religions
Communication in such a global village would be such a challenge! Learning how to navigate the nuances and influence a workforce that cuts across countries and cultures is a real challenge for leaders who manage a global workforce.
Understanding culture as an iceberg
It is interesting to note what we see above the water of an iceberg is nothing compared to the enormity concealed beneath.
If we think about iceberg analogy and relate it to culture, what we see on top of the iceberg are our behaviours. But what lie below the waterline are our attitudes, beliefs and values. As we observe a culture more closely we notice many subtle nuances that go beyond language. These include traditions, customs, food, and acceptable dress code etc. What we see is the outward manifestation of all the underlying factors that form a behaviour and shape a group’s worldview. But spotting group attitudes, cultural nuances, personal biases are difficult at the surface level. And understanding these hidden factors is essential for any competent global leader to bridge trust, gain loyalty and co-create long-term value.
To become aware means you are observant of nuances that could have been in the blind spot when looked through a different cultural lens.
Tips to help you manage intercultural communications
Whether you work abroad or deal with others who work abroad, these tips will help you in dealing with the differences among people from many nationalities.
1. Develop Personal Mindful Awareness
To become aware means you are observant of nuances that could have been in the blind spot when looked through a different cultural lens. Mindful behaviour helps us moderate anxiety and uncertainty as we can openly explore unfamiliar situations. It gives us self-confidence. People with high self-awareness inherently cause others around them to feel calm and self-assured in addressing any issues related to misunderstood cultural biases. How to become more mindful? Breathe. Quiet your mind. Become present! And trust that something about this exercise will influence your biology with a chemical reaction of dialling down anxiety while enhancing compassion, assurance and openness.
2. Understand dynamics
This is all about doing your homework! By learning more about cross-cultural dynamics we can start understanding why things are the way they are in other tribes and countries. Uncovering and understanding hidden cultural dimensions help us develop a deeper appreciation for differences. It gives us clues to enhance our conversational intelligence. We learn how to communicate with a proper use of our body language, we adjust the pitch as we speak, we learn about the appropriate analogies to help us draw a common understanding towards the conversational topic. Understanding cultural dynamics is an essential to becoming a competent cross-cultural communicator.
3. Become competent
Becoming competent at intercultural communications makes you a cultural detective. It equips you with essential tools to effectively deal with people who live in different realms of culture identity, norms of power-play, direct or indirect communication styles etc. For example, how do 20-something-year-olds work alongside and possibly even manage colleagues who are significantly older? In American culture generational differences aren’t as sensitive as they are in India. Religion-based biases may not be as sensitive to handle in India as they may be in the Middle East.
Remember, if you are a leader who is responsible for advocating belief systems or if you are simply responsible for influencing your own little global village, start paying closer attention to hidden intercultural communication factors. You can do this by strengthening self-awareness, understanding dynamics and becoming competent at influencing cross-culturally.